Burrhus Frederic Skinner, commonly known as B. F. Skinner, was a psychological revolutionary in American psychology and education. The most celebrated psychologist since Sigmund Freud, Skinner believed that given the chance, most people can make themselves into anything they want. Skinner’s most lasting contribution was the theory that patterns of behavior can be identified, manipulated, taught and motivated by the promise of a reward.
Skinner was born on March 20, 1904, in a small Pennsylvania town called Susquehanna. His father was a lawyer; his mother a strong and intelligent housewife. In his youth, he loved the outdoors and building things. These two loves would serve him well in his life’s work.
Aspiring to become a writer, he received his B.A. in English from Hamilton College in upstate New York. It is said that he did not fit in well. It was a school that required daily chapel attendance and he was an atheist.
After graduating, he tried to make a living as a writer. He moved back home, and then lived in Greenwich Village trying his hand at poetry, fiction and newspaper articles. However, he was not successful. “I had nothing important to say,” he later remarked. For a short time, he worked in a bookstore and started reading books by behaviorists Pavlov and Watson.
Both were great influences on him, and Skinner decided to go back to school. This time, his course of study was psychology. He earned a masters and a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University.
In 1936, he moved to Minneapolis to teach at the University of Minnesota; there he met and married Yvonne Blue. They had two daughters. Skinner sought every opportunity to experiment with his immediate surroundings. While an infant, he put his second child in one of his inventions, a controlled-environment chamber.
Pigeons became his favorite experimental subjects because they roosted outside his office window at the University of Minnesota. He “taught” pigeons to perform complicated tasks by rewarding them for achieving smaller goals. Want to teach a pigeon to move in a full circle? Give him a reward for turning in the right direction and continue to reward him at intervals as he turns all the way around. Space the rewards at longer and longer intervals, and eventually, he will be conditioned to turn full circle with only one reward. Skinner named this theory operant behavior.
He furthered his research and study when, in 1945, he became chairman of the psychology department at Indiana University. In 1948, returned to Harvard where he stayed for the rest of his life.
Skinner’s dozens of students were inspired by the work of this behaviorist and his belief that behavior can be reshaped. Behaviorism promised the possibility of change and improvement. It fit in well with the American Dream.
His experiments with rats is legendary. The boxes he designed were later known as the Skinner boxes. They enabled rats to be automatically rewarded when they depressed a lever or pushed a button. These experiments proved his theory that desired behavior is reinforced by the anticipation of a reward, different from Pavlov who postulated that it was motivated by a preceding stimulus.
Therefore, said Skinner, behavior is not shaped and controlled by the environment; we can change the environment to shape behavior.
Skinner wrote several books – more than a dozen on the subject of science and human behavior; he also wrote part one, two and three of his autobiography. The Behavior of Organisms and a novel Walden II were among his early works; Enjoy Old Age: A Program of Self Management was among his last. Walden II was a story about a commune where behaviorists created a new kind of utopia.
At Harvard, Skinner remained very active until the day he died. Just ten days before his death, he gave a talk to the American Psychological Association. On August 18, 1990, B.F. Skinner succumbed to leukemia but not before finishing the article from which the talk was taken.
What implications does Skinner work have today? Skinner had a major impact on teaching methods. In 1968, he wrote The Technology of Teaching in which he suggested that the then current teaching methods were not effective. Learning occurs best in intervals; not when the information is presented in one large block with a quiz or test at the end. Effective instruction requires students to respond to what each smaller lesson of information presents and to get immediate feedback on their performance before moving to the next lesson. In addition, like the experiment with the pigeons, the sequence of steps taken to reach the final end is important.